Saturday, January 12, 2008

Fringe Characters

Over at Dennis Cozzalio's site, a debate broke out recently over Juno, which DC had nominated for Worst Film of the Year honors and in his post included the following choice words:

"For Juno....pregnancy boils down to yet another accessory, an emblem of the character’s ultimate outsider status which the film uses as a weapon (in a particularly nasty scene in which Juno and her stepmother shout down a radiologist for asking sensible questions about her pregnancy) as much as for instant sympathy."

I found myself nodding along in "Amen, brother" fashion while I read this, perhaps because I had singled out the same scene in my review. Soon after, however, in Cozzalio's comments section, Simon Crowe begged to differ:

"The fact that you consider the moralistic and inappropriate questions of the ultrasound tech to be reasonable are a clear tip that your judgment of Juno is out of whack. There's no context in which that character's behavior wasn't out of line, but I'm guessing her views echo your personal beliefs. "

Cozzalio in turn replied that Crowe could "substitute 'sensible'....for 'reasonable,' or maybe you could just say 'concerned,' which is what I think the ultrasound technician shows in the scene, unsolicited, inappropriate or not." But for me, it was in his subsequent observation that the discussion took a more interesting turn:

"[T]he fact that the characters respond to her inquiry the way they do seemed quite in line with a long tradition of scoring points off of the supposed insensitivity of peripheral characters in order to validate the point of view of characters who are clearly far more justified (emphasis added), at least in the movie's mind."

Not only did this explain in more concise terms why I hated that scene -- and Juno in general -- but it got me thinking about the difference between movies with an inclusive point of view and movies with what one could call an exclusivist perspective. The distinction is tricky, of course: I'm not necessarily talking about a "populist" sensibility like Spielberg's or James L. Brooks's as opposed to the more divisive appeal of a worldview like that of Kubrick or the Coens. What I mean is a sense that in a world of a particular film there is an acknowledgement, however tacit, that all the characters have lives beyond what we see in the frame.

This, too, can be difficult to evaluate. Spielberg, of course, received a heaping of criticism for his depiction of Arabs in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and while a lot of it was probably accurate, I must confess that I still laugh when Indy shoots the swordsman in the marketplace. (My only defense, immaturity aside, is that I think I'm laughing at the undermining of audience expectations of a big action movie fight scene, not at who the character is or what he represents.) Of course criticism of Spielberg went the other way with Munich, which some saw as applying too much moral equivalency to the methods of Islamists with those of certain Western governments. I still struggle with the themes of that film; but I also remain haunted by the humane portrayal of the assassins' targets, especially the man who kindly talks with Eric Bana on the hotel veranda moments before he's blown to smithereens.

Less controversially but no less pointedly, the Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (whose style I have not been alone in comparing to the young Spielberg) employs minor characters in profound ways in The Host. For the first third of the movie, we see the action through the family of a girl -- namely the girl's father (played by Song Kang-ho) -- abducted by a creature terrorizing Seoul. Suddenly, in a scene under a bridge, the perspective shifts for a few minutes from the family to a pair of new characters, a father and son, looking for food in the area. Although one of them is eventually killed by the monster, they're not used as fodder. At the end of the movie, Joon-ho makes his intentions clear, implying that the lives of these seemingly unimportant characters have as much value as the ones who occupy most of the screen.

A cursory viewing of most movies shows just how radical a notion this is. I mentioned Brooks earlier because it was in Terms of Endearment -- one of the first "grown-up" films I remember seeing as a kid -- that he featured a scene in a supermarket where Debra Winger is unable to pay for her groceries. A nasty checkout girl rolls her eyes and bellows into the store mike: "Can I have the register key? She doesn't have enough money!" As Winger eliminates items to purchase, to the anger and embarrassment of her boys, the checkout girl continues in this fashion until John Lithgow, behind Winger in line, steps up and offers to pay for the groceries. He then says something to the effect of, "You're a very rude young woman. I know the owner of this store and I don't believe he would want you treating your customers so badly." When the girl replies that she doesn't think she was treating Winger badly, Lithgow retorts, "Then you must be from New York."

When I was younger I laughed at this scene more than I do now. It's a nifty gotcha moment, exquisitely timed, but today I see Brooks as pandering to the audience in the same way that Cozzalio accuses Reitman and Cody of doing in the scene in Juno with the ultrasound woman: Who hasn't been humiliated at one time or another in a grocery store line, or felt degraded by hospital personnel? It's easy to score points at the expense of supporting characters meant to personify environments that we the audience see as hostile or indifferent; it's far more daring and satisfying to depict these characters as separate from, or even victims of, the same system.

Say what you will about Judd Apatow (he's too crass, he's actually conservative, he doesn't get women), I can't give into the backlash for the simple reason that his universe is so expansive. Consider the scene in Knocked Up where Leslie Mann launches into a tirade against the bouncer denying her entry into a nightclub. In any other movie, she would have stormed off in a huff and that would have been the end of it. Here, though, the bouncer takes her aside and has a quiet monologue (brilliantly delivered by Craig Robinson) that not only gives this minor character the last word but delves into issues of gender, age and social class. And compare the aformentioned scene in Juno with the one in Knocked Up where an Asian physician (the excellent Ken Jeong) has an argument with Katherine Heigl while she's in labor. Seth Rogen asks him to step outside the delivery room, and rather than tell him off Rogen tries reasoning with him until the doctor calms down and reenters the delivery room with a new perspective. He comes across not as the butt of a joke, but as something hardly ever seen in movies: a human being who's just having a bad day.


Anonymous said...

Terrific post, Craig. You and Dennis are really onto something. The labor scene in "Knocked Up" is also a key moment for Seth Rogen's character. In the previous scene, on the phone, he was cussing out the doctor who had abandoned them for a bar mitzvah in San Francisco. You expect him to go ballistic with this doctor when they step out into the hallway. And he doesn't. He approaches him as a human being because that's the best way to help get Alison what she needs at that moment. She's relying on him, and he comes through by controlling his temper and connecting with the doctor on a reasonable, human level.

Craig said...

Thanks, Jim, for expanding on that scene, illustrating even further how it plays out against expectations. Like I said in my post, one of the things I love about Apatow is his generosity towards these seemingly minor characters. If I were an actor I'd love to work for him -- even the bit players get their moments.

Simon Crowe said...

Thanks for the mention. Getting back to Juno for a moment - I have posted some further thoughts on my exchange with Dennis Cozzalio and on bloggers' reaction to Juno in general at Mostly Movies.

Craig said...

Thanks for continuing the discussion, Simon. Coincidentally, I had commented on your post not long before you responded to mine.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Nice job, Craig. I posted an extended comment about the piece at The House, where your piece was a Link of the Day. You've cogently summarized a rant I've been inflicting on friends and family for -- geez, probably about 20 years now.

The short version: the continued popularity of touches like the ones you cite in this piece confirm Norman Mailer's belief in America's latent potential for fascism.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I wish I had remembered that moment Jim cites in Knocked Up, because it's a great example of a movie side-stepping a golden opportunity to get the audience's blood up in sure-fire fashion. Shirley Maclaine screaming at the nurses in the hospital in Terms of Endearment is, for me, the nadir of scenes like these, and precisely the cheap shot Apatow could have used to weaken his movie.

Thanks, Craig, for your excellent treatment of this idea. And Matt, nothing like the Mailer touch to sum it all up, eh? The people I end up arguing with about these kinds of moments seem way too willing to submit to the adrenaline charge the movie seems to offer by such cheap tactics. "Well, the movie made me cry/cheer/get angry, so it must be good!" Extend that to the tendencies of the general populace to be manipulated by politicians, special interest groups, the media, whatever, and that's a frightening thing to consider.

Craig said...

Great observations from everyone.

Sometimes I cut a movie a little slack on this issue; it can depend on the genre (such as satire), the context of the scene, or my mood. The climax of the first Crocodile Dundee features the central couple declaring their love for each other from across a crowded subway station, with several passers-by in between relaying the words of affection back and forth, followed by hoisting them over their shoulders and applauding the climactic clench. The entire movie is charming though, so I give the scene a pass.

Having said that, I think it's even funnier when two characters get together despite the chorus of disapproval from those around them. (Unfortunately can't think of an example offhand, but I'm sure there are a few....)

Another point I wanted to restate is that I think movies are more effective, and are less likely to resort to the kinds of tactics that all of you mentioned, when there's a sense that even the most minor characters have lives beyond the frame. Sometimes it's the work of the actor that establishes this (Bill Macy and Philip Seymour Hoffman did this regularly when they were still bit players for the likes of David Mamet and P.T. Anderson), but it seems to help to have people behind the camera with both a broad worldview and an attention to detail. In Knocked Up, with actors like Craig Robinson and Ken Jeong, and writer-directors like Apatow, you have the best of everything.

Anonymous said...

I love this post, because one of the things I appreciated very much about "Knocked Up" was the treatment of the fringe characters that you mentioned. The bouncer scene and the scene with the doctor were perfect examples of a comedic worldview that is expansive, rather than what I call "cheapshot filmmaking". Cheapshot filmmaking has ruined (along with other things) movies as diverse as "Die Hard", "Pretty Woman" and "The Squid and the Whale", to name a few.

Craig said...

Thanks very much, Alex. Your comment on "cheapshot filmmaking" is interesting and reminds me of discussions that Matt and others have had on that topic, insofar as who qualifies and who doesn't. I don't know where you stand on the Coen Bros, but in No Country for Old Men, at least, I had the sense that all those supporting characters had lives that extended beyond the frame. Because of this, I didn't feel like they were being condescending or disrespectful or other terms commonly used against them.

Nelson said...

A very thoughtful post on what I guess we can now officially agree to call "cheapshot filmmaking." Two more examples:

- Matt Damon's "How do you like them apples?" moment in GOOD WILL HUNTING. Yes, our hero is a sensitive misunderstood-genius working-class kid, and the target of this withering remark is a rich arrogant frat boy. Whatever. While other people in the theater pumped their fists at this scene, I gave it the finger.

- Jack Nicholson and his "I want you to hold it between your legs" line to the waitress in FIVE EASY PIECES. A famous moment, of course, due to the sharpness of the dialogue and Nicholson's brilliant delivery, but a cheap-shot, get-the-audience-to-say-"fuck-yeah!" moment nevertheless. It's the scene everyone always talks about, when instead they should be talking about Nicholson's monologue to his mute, paralyzed father, which is truly a scene for the ages.

Craig said...

Good examples, Nelson. I will say that in Five Easy Pieces, at least the waitress comes across as a formidable adversary (unlike the preppy chumps in Good Will Hunting, who never stand a chance). I'm ashamed to say I've never seen the entire movie, just really the clip of the restaurant scene, but you've put it back on my list.